Paola Antonelli, curator of the Architecture and Design Department at MoMA, murmured about it in a vaguely "Almodóvarian" way in a dark Bavarian restaurant in January 2009. She explained, "I still don't know what I will choose for my next show, but I do know what its title will be."
Sure enough, two-and-a-half years later, Talk To Me opens at the famous New York museum. More than 200 pieces are on display: toys, installations, videos, interactive web sites and objects of all kinds crowd the third-floor gallery with numerous other references in the museum's circulation space both inside and outside the building.
The idea is a simple one. In recent years, with the digital revolution, a large number of electronic devices have become part of our daily lives. Thanks to them, our objects, our homes and even our cities have acquired the ability to "talk to" or interact with us. All of this is radically changing not only our lives but also the design profession which now must be able to move between very different disciplines (from programming to sociology) critically rethinking its mission.
In the catalogue text, these changes are read along the long wave of opposition to cold 20th century rationalism: "The clichés of the twentieth century, such as 'form follows function', the modernist motto borrowed with some variation by Louis H. Sullivan, and 'design means solving problems'... have been responsible for soulless and lobotomized architectural design." On the contrary, the experiences shown in Talk To Me go back to the 1960s and the fruitful experiences of the radicals with their first ideas regarding cybernetic, mobile and interactive architecture.
It seems to us that it could go even further back, almost to the very origins of art and that ever-present longing for the creation of artificial worlds that can take on a life of their own. One is reminded of the well-known Michelangelo cry, "Why don't you speak to me" or Marie Antoinette's automatons, scenes of daily life that took on a vague semblance of animation through sophisticated mechanical systems.
Today, everything is easier with digital applications. Automatons haunt us when we take money from ATMs (elegant BBVA ATMs designed by IDEO are included in the new exhibit at MoMA) or buy smart cards for urban travel or monitor the energy consumption of our homes in real-time. They help us when we can no longer perform certain tasks, like the Eye-Writer project, an interface based on the recognition of pupil movements by Tony Quan, American graffiti artist who is now paralyzed but who can continue working by using this system.
In some projects in the show, interaction with the visitor is missing—as in the striking real-time visualizations of large amounts of urban data, whether representing the movement of taxis in Lisbon or 911 emergency calls in New York. In other cases, one gets the impression that we are looking at projects by final year art-school students, such as Menstruation Machine, a complex mechanism for simulating the effect of menstruation in males. Objections could also be raised regarding the graphics and layout of the exhibition, which seems to be based on a vision of the digital that is a bit too romantic and old-fashioned, made up of pixels and elementary colors. Overall, however, the exhibition theme emerges clearly and seems to be one that will leave its mark.
Some of the unresolved questions raised by the projects on display will also leave their mark. The fact that more and more objects today are crammed with electronic components means creating problems for waste disposal in the years to come. Today in Europe and America used computers are disposed of in special ways but what will happen when every object is like a mini-computer? A project I'm involved in called Balk Talk, developed specially for the MoMA, uses microchips to trace in real-time many hundreds of electronics components along their paths for recycling or reuse from the United States to emerging nations such as Ghana, India, China, Nepal, Indonesia, Chile.
A final interesting question regards the cacophony that could be created with the constant 'talk' by all the objects surrounding us. A colleague recently returned from a visit to an elegant hotel in Asia and pointed out how the extensive use of sensors and automation created curious short-circuits: opening the curtains turned off the air conditioning; closing the fridge automatically triggered the shower. As if to say: Talk to me, but not too much.